Richard Witkin

Air Safety

VTR Date: October 16, 1979

Guest: Witkin, Richard



Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Witkin
VTR: 10/16/79

I’m Richard Heffner. My guest today on The Open Mind is an expert on a subject close to more and more Americans each year. For each year more and more of us fly, and even those of us who don’t fly do have more and more reason to show a deep concern for the safety of those who do. All of us want to know whether everything humanly possible is being done to guarantee safety in the air. And if not, why not. That’s why I’ve asked Richard Witkin, the Transportation Editor of The New York Times to join me again on The Open Mind. For a long time he’s been a most objective, though by no means an indifferently dispassionate observer of the aviation scene. If others want to go over the same ground, we’ll surely try to make that possible. Meanwhile, I think most of us will feel better informed if not more comfortable listening to what this prime reporter has to tell the flying public.

Dick, thank you for joining me again today. I was trying to figure out how to begin this program, and I figured the best way to say it is that we’re taping it on October the 16th, 1979, so that when people watch they’ll know that things that have transpired between now and then can’t be taken into consideration by us today. And that sounds ominous, and yet it seems to me that once a month as I pick up the newspaper I find at least here in New York or in Los Angeles where I commute, some reference to an air incident, a near-miss, a mishap perhaps. What in the world is happening?

WITKIN: Well, there are several things happening. One thing that’s happening of course is something you referred to in your introduction, is that aviation’s growing. More and more people fly, whether on commercial airlines or on private aircraft, corporate planes, pleasure craft. And so we have a sky that’s a little sky with more and more airplanes in it. That’s one of the problems. We have a great proliferation of what’s known as commuter airlines, smaller airlines that are filling the gaps left by the major trunk lines and the local service lines that have pulled out of some of the smaller cities. So we’re getting this…

HEFFNER: Well now, let’s go back to the first point. You say, well, the air is more heavily occupied. Does that mean for me as a traveler by air for someone viewing us today that you’re saying, hey, safety has to, by definition be less and less, not of a factor to be considered, but more and more of a concern for us because there are these aircraft, more and more aircraft in the air?

WITKIN: Well, theoretically, as you have more and more aircraft competing for the limited amount of sky you have great advances in technology, in control of traffic from the ground, with electronics and computers and radar and everything, which can accommodate more aircraft to a limited amount of sky. But this is a constant delicate balance that has to be kept. And frankly in a very complex and congested region such as New York I’m not sure we’re keeping up with the parade. And that’s why I had this piece last week about three very serious near collisions in the New York area just in the last few months.

HEFFNER: Well, you say theoretically there is a benign balance between the crowded sky or how much more crowded it’s becoming, and our technical ability to handle the crowds in the sky. But only theoretically.

WITKIN: Yes, theoretically because we still have humans in the loop. You still have human beings in the aircraft flying the plane, who may or may not always abide by the federal aviation regulations. You have human beings in the air traffic control centers on the ground who may or may not make a mistake, and whose mistake may or may not be caught by the human supervisor over them, or in some cases by the automatic warning devices that exist. You also have, still, although much less so than in the earlier decades of aviation, something can go wrong on an airplane, as seems to have happened in the DC-10 crash in Chicago last May 25, which, where the initial problem probably was caused by a maintenance error on the part of the airline, but after that other things transpired which may have had something to do with the question of whether the design of the plane was totally adequate. These issues are still being looked into by the federal government.

HEFFNER: Well, now, you seem to me – forgive me, because I’m a novice at this – but you seem to be saying two things. And they’re not necessarily mutually contradictory, but perhaps the one message I get is that what we’re talking about is the potential for human error. In the crowded sky the potential is much greater.

WITKIN: Uh hmm.

HEFFNER: Is it that that is bringing about that imbalance that you referred to originally? Or is it poor design, faulty design, deregulation, all those other factors?

WITKIN: Well, first of all, let’s start with the premise that if you had a perfectly safe aviation system, a perfectly safe plane, it would never get off the ground. It would have so many safety devices on it it would be too heavy to leave the runway. I mean, to risk an accident occasionally is a fact of life that we all have to live with. This is going to be so forever. The other thing is that most aviation safety experts are pretty well agreed that no accident that takes place is ever due to one single thing. There was a big hoopla made right after the Chicago crash on how one bolt came off. That was much too simplistic, much too hasty a conclusion drawn by some very exercised government officials. No, it’s usually four or five or six or however many you want to take circumstances all happening to come together at a particular time at the right place at the right time that causes a crash.

HEFFNER: And the matter of human error? What role does it play in this, in your estimation? You’ve been following this.

WITKIN: It varies from accident to accident. In a near collision in the air, in a couple of them recently it was purely and simply that, form all the evidence that’s been gathered so far, a mistake made by an air traffic controller operating in the traffic control center in the New York area. However, you then have to say to yourself, the New York traffic control center does not have the most modern – this is ironic really – the New York traffic control center does not have the very latest, most modern equipment that is available for handling traffic. Why is that? Because New York had the most modern equipment back ten 15 years ago, whenever it was, then it had to get in line and other cities got the more modern stuff that was being developed, and by the time it came around to New York again we were behind the parade.

HEFFNER: Dick, what do you mean, “Had to get in line?”

WITKIN: Well, the Federal Aviation Administration is a federal government organization with a finite budget voted by your congressmen and my congressmen. And they have a set number of funds in Los Angeles and Seattle and Chicago and New Orleans, and even Dubuque has as much right to control facilities, to the latest computers, to the latest radars, to the latest manning, the best manning of the control centers as anybody else. So you can’t put in a computer in New York one year and then three years later there are better computers made but Dubuque has nothing so you put the better one in, they’re in line, they’ve been waiting for five, ten years, and then San Francisco is going to get updated, so it’s a question of budgeting. Now, whether we have a big enough budget, whether we’re moving fast enough is an issue that can be debated. But the actual fact of the matter is that New York’s air traffic controlling equipment is not of the latest. For instance, there were some pieces written earlier this year which facts were flabbergasting to me when I found them out, that the towers at New York’s three major airports, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark did not have in those towers what’s known as alphanumeric equipment, which is, which will tell a controller watching the aircraft radar blips on a scope will tell him with a designation right next to the radar return what the altitude of the plane is. In other words, the towers in New York didn’t know the altitudes of some of the planes they were handling. That stuff is routine in many other cities in this country…because we’re waiting, we had been waiting until the completion of a brand new, ultra-modern, the latest of everything, computer, traffic control facility that’s now being built in Garden City. But It’s 12 months to 18 months behind schedule. What they have done however, after those articles appeared, was decide to hurry up this part of the system which has to work from computers, and they’re going to have the altitude capability on the radar scopes in the towers hopefully now by December. That’s two months behind schedule.

HEFFNER: Well, two months behind schedule.

WITKIN: Well, they said when they announced it very energetically last spring that it would be by October. Well, it’s now off ‘til December. Hopefully it’ll be in.

HEFFNER: Dick, if you had to fly into or fly out of New York; Washington, DC; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, which one, if you had to take your pick, which one would be on the bottom of the list, the last one you’d want to fly into or out of? Fair question?

WITKIN: (Laughter) Well, I don’t know. It’s a matter of personal judgment and prejudice. I would say…

HEFFNER: I thought it was a matter of equipment.

WITKIN: Well, it is a matter of equipment. But it’s also a matter of how dense and congested the traffic is at the time. I would say that right now the real, the concern, the real top concern, top priority concern is over New York. New York has three airports; not one. It’s got the most congested area. It’s got the most complex mixture of traffic and criss-crossing of traffic not only to the three major airports but to peripheral airports such as Teterboro and Zahns and Republic and where else. So New York, I would say, at the moment is where you have to put your concentration.

HEFFNER: Well, going back to this phrase you used, “Have to get in line, it’s a fact of life,” I think I can understand that except that I’m one of those poor boobs who has made the assumption all along that I’m protected, never mind getting on line with it comes to something like air safety. And I think my assumption and that of a great many people I know, and I suspect a great many people you know, unless you’ve enlightened them already, has been that there is a development, there is an air safety feature, and we have it here in New York and we have it in Los Angeles, and we have it in Washington. Can’t our society afford that?

WITKIN: I think they can. But you run into the usual bureaucratic problems. And one of the gains that you have from having media exposure of some of these things on this program and in my own paper is to light some fires under some of these people. Because one of the problems with air safety in this country over the decades, in my view, is that we always have to wait ‘til Pearl Harbor occurs before we react sufficiently, whereas I believe in preventative medicine. We can take measures before these things happen. And a lot of aircraft accidents you can see them coming months ahead. You can just see the situation ready for an accident to happen.

HEFFNER: I’m not going to ask you what you see ahead. I’d be concerned about what you’d reply. But let me ask you, you say in the area of air safety, you say that’s the trouble with the area of air safety in this country.

WITKIN: Well, it’s true. Politics and everything else, too.

HEFFNER: Well then you’re not singling out what we do in our skies or don’t do?

WITKIN: I’m only here as someone who’s knowledgeable in the field of air safety. That’s my field of concentration. I wouldn’t presume in this broadcast to go into what I think we should do about the Middle East. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yeah, yeah, but Dick, come one. Your colleagues have tapped you on the shoulder when they’ve read something in your, in The Times, the way you’ve called attention to a threatening situation and probably have tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Listen, you think it’s bad in the air, you should see what it is in the coal mines or here or there or someplace else.” Is this a particular danger area in terms of a perhaps less effective concern for safety in the air?

WITKIN: You mean New York or air safety?

HEFFNER: No, air safety.

WITKIN: Well, let’s put it in some perspective. I don’t think air safety is in any worse position that a lot of other things that go on in our public life. But that doesn’t mean we should sit here, we who know something about it, and let it sit. If you look back over the decades, the traveling by our commercial airlines is one of the safest things you can do. It’s been said as a cliché that it’s safer than taking an automobile trip. And I believe it is.

HEFFNER: And safer than walking across the street, presumably, or something like that?

WITKIN: In the middle of New York, often times it is, too. But that doesn’t mean we should sit around and wait for the next accident to happen. There’s no reason to have 273 people killed in one fell swoop, which has a dramatic impact, much more than 50,000 people being killed a year one-on-one on the highways of America. And also, you can have an epidemic of two or three of these things happening, and that would set back aviation a tremendous amount. Let’s face it, in the last year we’ve had two major disasters in this country. We had the San Diego mid-air collision of September 1978, and we had the Chicago crash in May 25 of this year. That’s a lot.

HEFFNER: Now, Dick, you said that if it should happen, if there should be a succession… Those two did occur. If there should be a succession. You said it would set back aviation. What do you mean, “set it back?”

WITKIN: Well, by “set it back,” you would find a lot of people would stop flying to a certain extent. You’d have to, perhaps, you’d probably have to impose rules that would slow down developments. It would psychologically cause a lot of people to move to other forms of travel. And perhaps it would inconvenience the public because in reaction to a series of accidents it might be that the pendulum would swing too far as it has a tendency to do in disasters, and they would take safety measures that maybe went much farther than would have had to have happened if they took a reasonable approach. Just as we’re having a reaction against nuclear energy after Three Mile Island, which may be too much of a reaction and maybe it’s given a lot of impetus to the movement to ban all nuclear power in this country, and perhaps that’s a pendulum that’s swinging too far. I see the same sort of thing could happen with aviation by taking too extreme a position.

HEFFNER: And, I guess my question after that is: And so what? If you say “set back,” would it be in the course of the history of the world such a bad thing if we now slowed down, if we now weren’t so concerned about getting from here to there quite so quickly and quite so often? Perhaps…

WITKIN: No, I was just talking about if you went too far. I think there’s a reasonable middle road. But I think that…

HEFFNER: How do you identify that reasonable middle road? You said before that you could be so concerned with safety that a plane would never get off the ground. Now, what’s a middle road?

WITKIN: A middle road is when a dangerous situation is staring you in the face, as I think it is in the New York air traffic control situation, and because of budgetary limitations or bureaucratic lethargy or not invented here, or whatever the thing might be, we don’t do something about it in time to prevent the accident. That’s, I think that a middle road would see a clear and present danger and do something about it. And I don’t think that’s happening. I mean, for instance, you said, “Is it such a bad thing to slow down, not in such a hurry to get places?” I think – I’m not an economist, but I daresay that most economists would say – that aviation has really been the lubrication that’s really made commerce and economy have some of its great advances in this county, more so than in other countries. And that’s one of the underpinnings of our economic health. And if our economic health gets bad because we have to do the wrong things in aviation that wouldn’t be good for anybody.

HEFFNER: Dick, you’re certainly no Luddite. You’re certainly not going to stand in the way…

WITKIN: Not at all.

HEFFNER: …of progress here.


HEFFNER: Not just for safety.

WITKIN: Well, I’m for progress, but I don’t see any reason to let things stare you in the face and not do anything about them.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s when you say that’s when you’ll act, that’s when you want to make absolutely certain that we act, when they stare you in the face.

WITKIN: That’s exactly right. And I don’t want to wait until after the accident if I can help it.

HEFFNER: I would’ve suspected that you would’ve said, but you didn’t…

WITKIN: (Laughter) That’s all right.

HEFFNER: …that let’s not wait ‘til they stare us in the face. I can understand you’re saying if they do stare us in the face…

WITKIN: Yeah, well.

HEFFNER: …by gosh, those are the things we’ve got to get to now and there’s no excuse for not doing it.

WITKIN: Oh, sure. I mean, I want to act as long in advance as you can see a problem arising.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’re an expert.

WITKIN: Good long-range planning. And I don’t think we’re having good long-range planning at the moment in the field of air traffic control.

HEFFNER: Okay. That brings me to the second thing that I wanted to ask you.


HEFFNER: You’ve identified certainly in terms of the New York area a bad situation now.

WITKIN: It seems to be, from all the things that are happening.

HEFFNER: Okay. In general, what are the areas that you think require long-range planning now in terms of air safety, now just in the New York area, not just this particular situation? What are the things that concern you, make you a little uneasy?

WITKIN: The thing that makes me most uneasy…there are two things that make me most uneasy. The first is the planning for how we’re going to deal with control of aircraft for the next ten, 20, 30 years. I think that the…

HEFFNER: In their design, you mean? The construction of them?

WITKIN: The research and development of the technology to keep airplanes from hitting each other. For instance, the technology seems to be here with the development of new computers where you can do things with microcomputers that you hold in your hand that would’ve taken a whole building ten, 15 years ago. There are ways now that you can put a computer in an airliner and that computer can pick up the radar returns of aircraft in 360-degree radius around it, circle around it, and you can have a display in the cockpit so that the pilot can see where all those other planes are and what their altitudes are, but those other planes would not have to buy the $25,000 computer that this airliner has to buy; they would only have to have what many of them already have, which is a radar transponder and an altitude coder. And the pilot in his aircraft could get a warning from that system if there was danger of a collision. He wouldn’t have to depend. It would be a backup device, a fall-back position in case the air traffic control system on the ground failed to pick up the potential conflict and send a warning by radio. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in charge of the operation of airlines all over the country and runs the air traffic control centers and puts in all the radar and other equipment, in my view has been dragging its feet for many years on pushing this technology fast enough and in testing various proposals that are made. They say they’ve got it, but they’re wedded to a system that is, they say is only three or four years away; I think, in view of past experience with their timetables it’s more like ten or 15 years away. And I would like to see us speed up the development of this kind of on-board computerized collision avoidance system. That’s what it’s called, CAS, collision avoidance system. The other area of great concern in the aviation community when it comes to safety is the horrible recent safety record of so-called commuter airlines. These are the smaller airlines which operate planes anywhere from six to 30 passengers, mostly piston or turbo-prop, turbine propeller planes, which are filling in the gaps, going to the cities that are being abandoned and pulled out of by the major trunk lines and the local service airlines which don’t find them as economical. After all, there’s not enough business in some cities to take a DC-9 or a flight once a day and perhaps the businessmen of that city would rather have four flights in a 25-passenger plane than one flight on a hundred-passenger plane. But the safety record of the commuter airlines and the maintenance and the pilot error – of some of them; there are good ones, medium ones, mediocre ones, and bad ones – but the safety record of the commuter airlines in this country is nothing like as good as the safety record of the trunk and local service airlines.